The Hannibal Lecture: Twain Museum Tells All

Need to satisfy your Tom jones? Come to Mark Twain's  Hannibal, Mo., where echoes of literature's favorite boy hero can still be found in the river city.
Need to satisfy your Tom jones? Come to Mark Twain's Hannibal, Mo., where echoes of literature's favorite boy hero can still be found in the river city. (© Buddy Mays -- Corbis)
By Bill O'Brian
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 4, 2007

Hannibal, Missouri.

Since I was a boy those words have conjured an idyllic image of the essence and texture of America. Of paddle-wheelers and flatboats plying the Mississippi River as it drains the heart of our continent. Of humble Midwestern folklore. A place where, geographically, the East ends and the West begins. Where, culturally, Northern mores meld clumsily with Southern sensibilities. A place of riverboat gamblers and whiskey runners. Of plain-spoken people whose maxim is Show me, don't tell me. Of rough-and-tumble merchants transporting and trading corn, wheat and other staples cultivated in our nation's breadbasket. A place, especially, of the literature of Mark Twain.

So, I went to Hannibal in search of a slice of Middle Americana, of the sort that those of us who live inside the Beltway are too rarely afforded. I wanted to connect tangibly with the provenance of Twain. To walk the streets that he did from 1839 to 1857. To sit right next to the muddy river at the foot of Hill Street as he must have. To take in the same bluff-top vistas far into the Illinois flatlands.

Those vistas are still glorious and breathtaking; the river is as forceful and as majestic as ever. But Hannibal itself, it turns out, is not so idyllic. It's Nondescript with a capital N. It's . . .

Let's let the man himself describe it.

"Hannibal has had a hard time of it ever since I can recollect," Twain once wrote. "First, it had me as a citizen, but I was too young then to really hurt the place."

* * *

Twain didn't hurt the place, of course. He made it. With words. And his words, not surprisingly, turn out to be the best way to get a handle on how the ideal of Hannibal survives within bricks-and-mortar Hannibal. Fortunately, that's something the people who run the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum fully understand.

Hannibal is a settlement of not quite 18,000 people in the northeast corner of Missouri, a state that geographically, politically and demographically is as Middle American as a state can be. Hannibal, 115 miles upriver from St. Louis, was the model village for Twain's settings in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

The museum, which is in a small, nicely preserved downtown district just west of a levee that keeps the Mississippi at bay, is essentially a walking tour consisting of eight buildings -- starting at a modern interpretive center and ending a few blocks away at an ornate gallery housed in a beautifully restored department store building that dates to the 1850s.

The museum attracts roughly 65,000 visitors annually and is amid a multiphase, decade-long $8 million facelift scheduled to be completed in two or three years. It is reaching out to a more national audience -- and a more diverse one, as evidenced by a temporary exhibit, "African Americans in Hannibal: Stories of Our Lives," that runs through May.

The museum traces its origin to 1912, when the author's boyhood home was saved from demolition, refurbished, donated to the city and opened to the public. For much of its existence, the museum accentuated the imaginary realm of Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher, Huck Finn, Jim and other Twain characters at the expense of a historically accurate portrayal of the gritty world from which Twain and those characters evolved: pre-Civil War, 19th-century America.

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